The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Review | Misfit Modernism: Queer Forms of Double Exile in the Twentieth-Century Novel

Misfit Modernism: Queer Forms of Double Exile in the Twentieth-Century Novel. By Octavio R. González. Penn State University Press, 2020. 248 pp. $101.95 (cloth); $39.95 (paper).

Reviewed by Pardis Dabashi, Bryn Mawr College

Back in 2008, Douglas Mao and Rebecca Walkowitz described three planesvertical, temporal, and spatialalong which they saw modernist scholarship expanding, registering a shift in the field they termed the New Modernist Studies. Scholars contesting the longstanding distinction between high and low art that Andreas Huyssen influentially called the “great divide” were expanding the field vertically; those examining the geographical scope of modernism beyond the confines of its traditional urban Euro-American frame were expanding it spatially; and those forging new chronologies of modernist aesthetics beyond the typical period of the late-nineteenth-early-twentieth-century were expanding it temporally. Otherwise put, the New Modernist Studies was distinctively not a formalist movement or moment. It sought, rather, to distance itself from its New Critical past, to “refashion” itself, in Cara Lewis’s words, “from a passé formalism” whose politics were quietist at best and perniciously conservative (if not fascist) at worst, “to an enlivened historicism” (5).

Part of that historicist bent involved, at least in principle, attending more systematically to the bodies of literature and culture typically excluded from the modernist canon along racial lines. The “academy’s” traditional “conception of modernism,” Michael Bibby explains, was predicated on the assumption that the Harlem Renaissance, for instance, was “not modernist” (486). And that was largely because throughout much of the 20th century, mainstream academia viewed African American and broadly African diasporic literature in primarily sociological and historical terms. While the Eliots, Steins, and Pounds of the world had purchase on “vanguardism, experimentalism, and innovation,” the Larsens, Hugheses, and Hurstons were, in the minds of high modernist academics, concerned solely with “racial identity, exoticism, and authenticity” (Bibby 486). As Michael Gillespie claims in the context of film and media studies, Black cultural production bore the weight of referentiality and thus was considered in terms of the “mimetic corroboration of the black experience” (2).

Since the publication of Bibby’s essay in 2013and again since 2016 and again since 2020scholars have been rushing to redress Bibby’s grim diagnosis of modernist studies’ enduring circumvention of Black literature and culture. The question of how to get modernist studies to be a less white institution not only in terms of its objects of study but also in the basic matter of whose bodies are in the room is now front and center in the minds of many of its administrative and scholarly constituents. Nevertheless, what Lewis calls the “enlivened historicism” of the New Modernist Studies, for all its genuinely good intentions, reinforced a very old tendency within modernist studies to deemphasize, if not avoid, formal considerations when discussing non-white literature. If the New Modernist Studies encouraged a departure from modernist scholarships old associations with New Critical conservatism, it also implicitly discouraged foregrounding form when reading the work of minoritarian writers.

It is for this reason that Octavio González’s Misfit Modernism: Queer Forms of Double Exile marks such an important moment in the recent history of modernist studies. It offers evidence not just of the refreshingly unselfconscious turn to formal analysis in recent scholarshipin this particular case, narrative theoryelucidating modernist texts. But far more importantly, it shows that when a razor-sharp formalist eye turns its attention to minoritarian writers’ work, including but not limited to that of the Harlem Renaissance (González’s figures are Nella Larsen, Wallace Thurman, Jean Rhys, and Christopher Isherwood), the results may in fact challenge some of the political assumptions and affects underpinning the New Modernist Studies’ inclusionist aims. The New Modernist Studies has been very good at getting students of modernism to recognize, at least on paper, the limits of the white, Anglo-American canon. Its tendency toward expansion did and still does facilitate a more sustained and meaningful engagement withor, at the very least acknowledgement ofnon-white cultural archives. The issue of queerness—one of González’s central topics—is a bit different, as many have argued, because of the purchase queer theory has had on the study of mainstream modernism that, say, Black studies or postcolonial studies has not. Having said that, González’s inclusion of Isherwood’s mid- and late-twentieth-century novels illustrates how the post-new-modernist-studies generation of scholars is revivifying the field by no longer investing in the traditional category of the modernist as a point, even, of defining opposition. Note, for instance, how the “modernism” of González’s title slides comfortably and unworriedly into the “Twentieth-Century Novel” of his subtitle. But the New Modernist Studies project, at least in its dominant, tone-setting instantiations, can be, and has been, described as fundamentally additive, pluralist. In short, the field of modernist studies has developed a liberal tone, whose attendant political affect has largely been one of recovery, uplift, and affirmation. Modernism isn’t just happening here, it’s happening everywhere! Everyone’s doing it!

The trouble has been, indeed, that the expansionist aims of the New Modernist Studies have led to something we might call a melting-pot model of modernism—a liberal-multiculturalist undertone that might explain why, try as it might, modernist studies can’t quite seem to get into a rhythm with comparative literature, American studies, and various other area studies. Some of this has to do with the overwhelming monolingualism of the field despite its geographical ambitions (modernist studies is still dominantly a fixture of the English department). But it is also because although modernist studies has illuminated the limits of its past homogeneity, it has been less good at grasping the actual realities of living with difference, realities that when looked at up close, often do not satisfy liberatory, let alone liberal, projects. This is the relevance of Misfit Modernism’s incisive focus on form. González shows us that reading form closely does not guarantee that one will encounter what one might hope to, given one’s progressive politics. Instead, it might lead one to find something far more “messy,” to borrow his appropriate term; more “immanent” (32).

Through a method of close reading González calls “immanent reading”which “entails drawing” from the text “some keywords; a phrase (or set of phrases)that hold the hermeneutic key to the novel’s meaning as a whole” (49)Misfit Modernism reads works of literature written by minoritarian writers for whom the project of recovery and uplift rings hollow because they recognize it as conditional. By way of certain resonant words“lonesomeness” in Thurman’s The Blacker the Berry (1929), for example, “shadow” in Rhys’s Quartet (1928), and “non-conformist” in Isherwood’s A Single Man (1964)González’s writers explore what it looks like to be marginalized not simply by the majoritarian world, but also by one’s minoritized community, which has adopted its own exclusionary schemas, many of them influenced by majoritarian ideals. This is the “double exile” of González’s title. The subject of chapter two, the “queer” Helga Crane in Larsen’s Quicksand (1928), for instance, is shunned by the white Euro-American middle-class, the Black middle-class Harlem cultural elite, and the socially conservative rural Black South. Thurman’s Emma Lou Morgan, as we see in González’s powerhouse of a third chapter, is rejected by the Black middle-class community for being too dark-skinned. Rhys’s Marya Zelli dwells in a negative “mood” irrecuperable, González argues, by any critical attempts to psychoanalytically “classify” her as, say, “melancholic,” a “diagnosis” that would “dignify” or “redeem” her (121, 136). And Isherwood’s George of A Single Man finds solace neither in heteronormative hegemony nor in the affirmative cultural and political narratives of identity-based gay collectivity. It is through immanent reading that one grows sensitive to the acute form of “misery” such double exile fostersa kind of formal analysis that “stay[s] close” to the prose in order to determine what it is doing on its own terms rather than how it might be amenable to pre-established “institutional critical approaches” that tend to “manag[e]…away” that misery by instrumentalizing it for a consumable theory or a mobilizable political program (41, 42). “Understanding that misery, rather than classifying it,” González writes in chapter four, “is ultimately the point” (135).

Indeed, that “alienation” from “the majority within the minority” is a “structure of feeling,” González claims by way of Raymond Williams, that is so powerful in its psychological damage and unrelenting in its demoralizations that it renders some not just incapable of uplift, but also hostile to its “moralistic” narratives of progress (40, 93). Reading for the microscopic twists and turns in narrative voice, perspective, and mood, González illuminates these authors’ explorations of what such total rejection feels like, andthis is keyof what it means not to rise above that alienation but to be destroyed by it, to even further retreat into the margins. As González argues of Emma Lou Morgan (the quiet star of Misfit Modernism), these authors are not interested in narratives of the “heroic recovery of self-respect” against historical and social odds. Think, for instance, as González does, of Helga Crane’s complete collapse at the harrowing end of Quicksand. Rather, through psycho-narration in Quicksand, “affective realism” in The Blacker the Berry, focalization in Quartet, and an anti-social queer version of modernist impersonality in Isherwood’s A Single Man, these authors force us to reckon with an irreparable “impasse,” the “weakness of the individual facing forces as large as social systems” (117). Narratives of uplift, progress, redemption, moral triumph, and personal autonomymost if not all of which are bent toward middle-class, liberal, state-oriented bids for belonging, rights, and communityare often “out of reach” for someone who has been rejected not only by the straight white world but also by “one’s own kind” (118, 100). Sometimes those narratives are just too much to ask.

Misfit Modernism is a fearless book in that it talks about aspects of social and psychic experience that are hard to talk about: internalized racism, colorism, self-hatred, rejection of the group in favor of one’s own private, illegible painand the failures of the minority to fully overcome the abuses of the majority as well as those of the minority. Liberal discourse, especially, does not know how to assimilate these social and psychological facts to what, in chapter five, González calls liberalism’s “principles of possessive personhood, as well as token versions of tolerance and equality” (161). As is most explicit in its fifth chapter, on Isherwood, it is a book that takes the lessons of queer antisocial theory to heart, exercising a healthy skepticism of the forms of liberal hope that creep into not just the “systems of knowing fortified by institutional power” such as psychoanalysis, which González sees Rhys critiquing in Quartet, but also into our own acts of literary-critical knowledge production.

What feels new and refreshing about González’s immanent reading practice as one possible solution to what is now the old critique of the expansionism of the New Modernist studies, is that it does not take uplift and affirmation for granted as possible or even desirable political and affective modalities. As a result, Misfit Modernism presents modernist studies with a challenge. If modernist studies wants to talk about race, desire, queerness, intersectionalityall the things the field now knows that it has to talk about if it wants to be on the right side of historythen it needs to be ready to talk about the mess. Because that is what it is to be a human being rather than a political slogan, or, for that matter, a line on a CV. The normativizing gesture of the label of “modernism” does all of nothing to heal the wounds of historical marginalization. Misfit Modernism suggests that extreme attention to form, howeverand a preparedness to accept whatever that immanent reading practice yieldsmight stand something of a chance.

Works Cited

Bibby, Michael. “The Disinterested and the Fine: New Negro Renaissance Poetry and the Racial Formation of Modernist Studies.” Modernism/modernity, vol. 20, no. 3, September 2013, pp. 485-501.

Gillespie, Michael. Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film. Duke UP, 2016.

Lewis, Cara L. Dynamic Form: How Intermediality Made Modernism. Cornell UP, 2020.

Mao, Douglas, and Rebecca Walkowitz, “The New Modernist Studies.” PMLA, vol. 123, no. 3, 2008, pp. 737-748.

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